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Why We Exchange Red Packets During Chinese New Year

By Renée Batchelor

 
Photograph by Aman John. Styled by Michelle Kok.
 

It’s likely that if you’re celebrating Chinese New Year today, that you might be giving or receiving red packets — or ang pows — to or from some of your loved ones, employees or even acquaintances. The red packets, some adorned with symbols of the Ox, to highlight this year's animal in the Chinese Zodiac, and many with corporate branding, have become increasingly complex and intricate. Some are textured, some are in 3D and many have beautiful original artwork imprinted on them. The gifting of red packets has become such an expected tradition among many Chinese people that few have thought to question the significance behind the gesture and the symbolism about why only certain individuals may give and receive an ang pow, why the colour red holds so much weight, and why only even or auspicious numbers (in the money amount given) are preferred. Besides the Chinese New Year, red packets are also given at weddings, on birthdays, upon graduation and on other special occasions.

One of the origin stories of the red packet, originating from the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BC), actually involves a demon called a sui, that would come on the eve of the New Year to touch the head of sleeping children, causing them to be fearful and cry. According to folklore, one couple protected their son, who was too sleepy to stay awake, by wrapping copper coins in a red paper bag and placing it under his pillow. When the sui appeared at night, the pillow brightened with a golden light, and the sui was scared away, thus spreading the belief that the red paper-wrapped coins had a sort of exorcising effect against spirits.

This then transformed into a the idea of yāsuì qián to protect a younger person from things like sickness and death — and as the printing press became more widely used in China, the yāsuì qián was replaced by red packets. The reason that coins are no longer used is simple. In the past, coins had holes in the middle, that allowed one to thread a string through them. But as the coins evolved to have solid centres, the money given in these red packets transformed into notes that were folded and placed inside the red packet instead.

But while the story that emerged from the Qin dynasty was one version of events, there are multiple origin stories that date back to later timer periods. Some link it to the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 BC), where folklore again tells the story of a young orphan who defeated a demon using a magical sword. In repayment for his bravery, the villagers gathered money together to give him and presented it in a red packet. It also became a tradition for young children to keep red packets under their beds as a form of protection.

In the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) it was believed that New Year’s money was inscribed with auspicious words such as as “May You Live a Long and Successful Life,” and was intended as a blessing. Again there was was a custom of giving “lucky money” that would help ward off evil spirits and this evolved into different forms in the Min and Qing dynasties. Today the tradition continues in modern China and many Southeast Asian countries with a large Chinese population (like Singapore), with the custom of elders giving the younger generation money, but with the added step that the young should kowtow (kneel) to receive this monetary blessing.

In Cambodia, the ang pav or tae ea is given by the older generation to the younger one, and the gift is kept almost as a worship item under the pillowcase, or near the bed of the young recipient while they are sleeping during the new year period. Similarly in Vietnam, the greetings exchanged with the ang pow, all relate back to the idea of health and longevity — key wishes in Chinese culture.

Photograph: Boontoom Sae-Kor/ShutterstockTraditionally ang pows are given from the elders to the younger members of the family as a blessing and a sign of well wishes for the upcoming year.
Traditionally ang pows are given from the elders to the younger members of the family as a blessing and a sign of well wishes for the upcoming year.

The Colour Red

The reason behind the colour red is largely due its lucky and auspicious significance in Chinese culture, which traces back also to its origins as a colour that is able to ward off evil spirits. Giving a red packet is a symbol of luck, prosperity and blessings for the recipient. The colour red is also the preferred shade to don during the Chinese New Year period, with colours such as black (deemed inauspicious and related to death) and even white (worn typically during funerals) are generally frowned upon.

In other Asian cultures, the colour red is not always used for these packets. For example, in South Korea, the money given from elders to the children is often given in a white envelope, with the name of the receiver written on the back. In Singapore and in neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Malay Muslims have adopted the custom of monetary gifting but use green envelopes instead during Hari Raya Aidilfitri — a festive occasion celebrating the end of the fasting period of Ramadan. Green is a colour associated with the Islamic religion, although multi-coloured envelopes or packets are not uncommon.

It is not just the colour of the ang pow but the type of bank notes and the numerical value inside the red packet that is significant. New bank notes are generally preferred which explains why in Singapore, there are long queues in the banks and limits set on ATMs when it comes to withdrawing new notes before Chinese New Year. In 2021 online reservations had to be made to acquire new notes in several banks. Similar to the custom of wearing new clothes and new pyjamas the night before the new year, crisp bank notes are seen as clean and auspicious — it would not be right, for example, to give crumpled or torn bills in your ang pows. It is also important to avoid giving any denomination that contains the number 4, as four sounds like the word “death” in Mandarin. Instead the number eight, and even numbers (except four) are generally preferred. Recipients should always receive an ang pow with two hands as a sign of respect and never open them in front of the giver, as this is deemed impolite.

Lastly there is no real limitations to who can give and receive ang pows, although the custom has again evolved such that married couples are usually expected to give them to younger, unmarried family members and acquaintances, such as children, younger siblings and cousins. Parents and grandparents can also give ang pows to their progeny as a form of good wishes and blessings for the year ahead. Some see the new year as an opportunity to thank those who have helped them by giving them monetary blessings. It is not uncommon to see bosses giving ang pows to employees, household owners to cleaning staff, patrons to hairdressers, or people in general giving them to anyone who they feel deserves this blessing.

Lastly, technology and distance may also have pushed the latest evolution of the ang pow. Starting in China several years back, the digital ang pow in the form of a money transfer (via the WeChat app) has become increasingly popular. In the era of the pandemic, with safe distancing, reduced visitor numbers and travel restrictions being the norm, it would not be considered impolite to send a digital ang pow via money transfer, especially if you are unlikely to see the recipient in person.

Banks have encouraged this in 2021 — with the Monetary Authority of Singapore saying in a statement, “They will help to reduce queues for physical notes and are more environmentally friendly.” Some bank apps such as Citibank, allow users to send a virtual ang pow, complete with a festive, red background. However, seeing that much of the luck of the red packet comes from the packet itself and not the money inside, it it remains to be seen how many will adopt the new trend, and if the tradition of the ang pow, which has survived thousands of years, will continue to be practiced in the next 100 years.